Tag Archives: Cees Nooteboom

Mokusei! by Cees Nooteboom

Identity, time, space, art, photography, culture, passion and love.  These are just some of the topics that Nooteboom explores in his beautifully written, stirring novella.  Arnold Pessers is a Dutch photographer who gets a job with a travel agency to take photos in Japan for one of their brochures.  Pessers would rather spend his time doing more creative art projects, but assignments like this boring brochure are what pays his bills.  Nooteboom’s description of his character’s profession also gives us a hint at the numbness he feels about his life: “His world, and this was a fact to which he resigned himself, was a world of brochures, of ephemera that no one would ever look at again; the decay, the sell-out, the morass.”  Pessers instantly falls in love with the mysterious model he chooses for the photo shoot and over the course of five years he maintains a long distance yet fierce love affair with the woman he calls Mokusei.

When Pessers first arrives in Japan, he connects with De Goede, an old friend who works as a cultural minister in the Belgian Embassy.  As De Goede guides Pessers through different tourist attractions, they discuss the misperceptions that western tourists have about the Japanese people and its culture.  De Goede complains that visitors pick up “half-baked” ideas about Zen or Japanese history and think they know all about this culture:

They don’t speak the language and in most cases never will.  They know a little, which is really nothing, about Japanese culture, but that doesn’t bother them, they have something  better than knowledge, they have an idea about Japan.  And this idea always has to do with a certain form of asceticism or purity or whatever you like to call it.  To put it briefly, it comes down to this, that they are convinced that the Japanese have managed better than other people to keep their heritage intact, as if in some kind of pure, unadulterated culture.

The ugliness, the stupidity, the ruthless slavishness with which the Japanese copy our worst habits, the buying of mass products, the ridiculously aped decadence—they refuse to see it.

The many nuanced and misunderstood layers of this culture mirrors Pessers’s relationship with the Japanese model.  As they travel to Mount Fuji for the photoshoot and stay at a ryokan together, his time with her is intense, passionate, exotic and shatters him in so many ways: “It was passion that would burn him down to his roots and through which all that came before and after would fade, because this time it was love first and foremost and only secondly a story.”  In addition to sending letters and running up his phone bills to call her, he travels to Japan to see her several times over the course of the next five years.  He cannot find the words to describe to his friends what he feels about her.  Her presence in his life has caused him to reexamine his own existence and to look at his world differently.

Pessers doesn’t know very many details about her life in Japan.  She refuses to visit him in Europe and when he hints that he wants a life with her and children she tells him this is impossible because of her culture—her parents would never approve of such a union.  He has three different names for her, which add to the mystery about her identity and her culture:

Mokusei is one of the few Japanese plants that smell, he learnt later, and that was what he had called her from then on.  Now she had three names, one secret, only known to him as Snowy Mask, her own, Satoko, which he never used, and Mokusei.  By that name he wrote to her, it was a name that existed only for them.

The other Nooteboom title that I have read, Letters to Poseidon,  also showcases the author’s ability to take something mundane—a flower, the sea, a nickname, a landscape—and write about it in such a way that makes one look at it from a fresh, philosophical perspective.

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Letters to Poseidon by Cees Nooteboom

Arguably the most enigmatic of the Ancient Greek gods, Poseidon is not as revered or respected as his brother Zeus, the god of the sky, lord of the universe, nor is he as feared as his brother Hades, master of the gloomy and dark underworld.  Poseidon’s realm is the sea, the ultimate middle child whose domain is the middle of the earth, the watery depths that occupy the space between sky and underworld.  Peter McDonald’s new, verse translation of the Homeric Hymns, beautifully and succinctly captures the multidimensional nature of this deity:

Hymn 22

To Poseidon:

Here the first great god that I
mention is Poseidon, mover
of the earth, the unpastured sea;
ocean god, presiding over
broad Aegae and Helicon.
Earth-shifter, the gods assigned
you a twofold part, the one
horse-taming, the other to find
safety for ships; I salute
you Poseidon, carrier
of the world and absolute
god with black and streaming hair:
keep your heart in charity
with those sailing on the sea.

It is this greatly feared, earth-shifter, master of the sea, to whom Cees Nooteboom decides to address a series of letters.  The author, writing these notes from his Mediterranean garden on the island of Menorca, imagines the lonely deity still ruling over the sea with his trident and his seahorse-drawn carriage.  Nooteboom uses the image, history and myth of this long-neglected deity to meditate on time, space, mortality and death; he is especially captivated by the anthropomorphic nature of god who is prone to anger and vengeance.  Nooteboom has many questions for Poseidon, among the most important of which are how he feels about being forgotten and abandoned for all of these centuries since the emergence of the one God and His Son:

I have always wondered how it felt when no one prayed to you any longer, and no one asked anything of you.  There must, once upon a time, have been one last supplicant.  Who was it? And where?  Did you and the other gods talk about it?  We look at your statues, but you are not there.  Were you jealous of the gods who came after you?  Are you laughing now that they too have been abandoned?

The tone of Nooteboom’s letters ranges from deeply philosophical and meditative, to humorous and playful.  On the one hand he feels sympathy for a god who is supposed to be immortal, but is no longer worshipped—in a way this abandonment has been like a death for this neglected ancient deity.  But on the other hand, Poseidon has a certain amount of freedom now to talk with the other gods and laugh at the irony of his situation:

What is a human being to the gods?  Do you despise us for being mortal?  Or is the opposite the case?  Are you jealous because we are allowed to die?  Because your fate is, of course, immortality, even though we have no idea where you are now.

No one talks about you anymore, and perhaps that hurts.  It is as if you have simply vanished.

In between the twenty-three letters he pens to Poseidon, the author also includes meditations, observations and thoughts about time and space via objects (his watch, a dying aloe plant), places he visits (a museum, an airport in South Korea, a beach), and newspaper articles (a story about infanticide or a looted Egyptian museum.)  Nooteboom’s thoughts about the looted Egyptian museum reflect the seventy-nine-year old’s ever-increasing awareness of his own mortality.  As he reads an article about the looting of a the museum, he is captivated by the head of a mummy that has been discarded on the floor, separated from the rest of its body:

Is a person who has been dead for a few thousand years as dead as someone who died last year?  Is there a hierarchy in the kingdom of the dead, giving those with more experience of death a different status from the newcomers, those who have not yet been touched by eternity, but who still smell of time, of life?  Are there social distinctions between mummies and corpses?

This book gave me a fresh perspective of not only the god Poseidon, whom I have to admit I had never given more than a passing thought, but also of how we look at the concept of divinity and immortality.  Nooteboom concludes his letters: “Of course I know that I have been sending letters to nobody.  But what if, tomorrow, out on the rocks, I should happen to find a trident.”

About the Author:

Cees Nooteboom (born Cornelis Johannes Jacobus Maria Nooteboom, 31 July 1933, in the Hague) is a Dutch author. He has won the Prijs der Nederlandse Letteren, the P. C. Hooft Award, the Pegasus Prize, the Ferdinand Bordewijk Prijs for Rituelen, the Austrian State Prize for European Literature and the Constantijn Huygens Prize, and has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

His works include Rituelen (Rituals, 1980); Een lied van schijn en wezen (A Song of Truth and Semblance, 1981); Berlijnse notities (Berlin Notes, 1990); Het volgende verhaal (The Following Story, 1991); Allerzielen (All Souls’ Day, 1998) and Paradijs verloren (Paradise Lost, 2004). (Het volgende verhaal won him the Aristeion Prize in 1993.) In 2005 he published “De slapende goden | Sueños y otras mentiras”, with lithographs by Jürgen Partenheimer.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Nonfiction